John Byrne - Our Robert Heinlein

John Byrne’s The High Ways has its first issue published by IDW. A sci-fi procedural thriller, it’s my favourite Byrne book for a long time. Principally because the voice is untempered by licence or audience or even nostalgia, and it is undeniably his.

But it also reminds me very much of Robert Heinlein. For two main reasons.

Firstly there is an attention to engineering detail in their work, and the practicalities of space travel. In books like Destination Moon, Heinlein set out just how a space race might work, or the practicalities of Have Spacesuit, Will Travel. Here, in High Ways, we get a lesson in the how space travel, gravity and extended periods of sleep would actually affect space opera. No faster-than-light drive, you want to get to Europa, it is taking you eight months, flying in a bolted together crate. There does seem an Alien and Aliens influence, but again, Heinlein was a central influence on those films as well.

And secondly, the politics. And I use that in a very wide sense.

Both authors emphasis the value of self reliance for pretty much everything in life, but also duty to society, to the species, as a whole. It’s that classic mix of Ayn Rand and Karl Marx.

They stand as a strange breed of libertarian statist, valuing a strong moral government that takes tough decisions for everyone, especially when it comes to defending the country as a whole and one’s duty to that cause. But also emphasising the importance of personal freedom – and taking responsibility for one’s actions.

But accusations of being fascist are hard to splice with their use of  gender and race, Byrne giving us the first gay Marvel superhero, transforming the Invisible Girl into the Invisible Woman, killing Guardian and replacing him with a woman in the role, and repeatedly giving black characters prominent, positive  roles in his books. Heinlein did the same, often only revealing the race of a character later in his novels and repeatedly, even  more notable at the time, creating strong female roles in his science fiction novels. But then both have received considerable criticism as well, whether that be Heinlein’s future where all the lawyers and politicians are women because of their innate female nurturing qualities, or Byrne for his use of racial epithets when making intellectual points, or a famous observation about blonde latino women . Pinning either down to any one political viewpoint is hard and as a result, either author can be used as  heroes or villains depending on your point of view, how selective you are, and the time of the day. Both also return to the concept of May-to-December relationships, both writing about a young girl who meets a grown man who will one day be her husband when she grows up. And, yes, this kind of thing happens a lot more than is comfortable. They also, depending on the expected age of the audience, like to get their characters naked, and into bed with each pretty sharpish.

Both recognised as extraordinary storytellers in their field, their work incredibly readable, even when explaining the most extraordinary of concepts. Both with a prodigious output, ahead of their peers. And, to some degree, both ostracised from the industry they spent their life in, considered mavericks and outsiders. I do wonder what would have happened if there had been a Robert Heinlein Forum in his day.

The High Ways appears from the first issue to be the most Heinleinish thing Byrne has created. But then, maybe he’s always been heading in this direction. Enjoy.

Comics courtesy of Orbital Comics, London.

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